Ken Livingstone: my policies "make no sense"

Imitation is, of course, the sincerest form of flattery. But now that “High Street Ken” Livingstone – the Chelsea motorist’s newest friend – has decided to imitate Boris Johnson’s policy of binning the western extension of the congestion charge, let’s recap what he said about this very idea just fourteen weeks ago.

“Londoners from Charlton to Chalk Farm will pay for the Chelsea congestion charge axe,” steamed Ken. It was “a political choice with direct consquences that cost Londoners across the city more in fares… cutting £50m-£70m in revenue a time when public services are under severe pressure makes no financial sense and… no sense in terms of traffic flow or pollution either.” The date of this passionate denunciation? December 24, 2010.

According to Ken’s ever-elastic calculations, the “£50-70 million in revenue” from the western extension which he quoted in December has now turned into a “£100-150 million cost” of bringing it back. That, he says, is why he’s not going to. Both numbers are, of course, total nonsense – as I described recently, the revenue brought in by the extension was far less than £70 million, or “Transport for Livingstone’s” claimed figure of £55 million. And even TfL could not manage to spend £150 million on re-erecting a few number plate cameras.

It’s the Ken groupies I feel sorriest for. Having worked so tirelessly to push the old line, they’re now having to pivot on a sixpence and explain the “intriguing” latest development as a “re-thinking of budgetary priorities.”

But this U-turn does raise more serious questions about Ken’s sums – which are shaping up to be a huge new problem for him in addition to all his existing problems. Three weeks ago, in interviews with BBC London and Mayorwatch, Ken pledged to stop Boris’s planned cuts in GLA services and preserve all existing capital spending (such as Crossrail)  – while at the same time freezing public transport fares in real terms and freezing his element of the council tax for four years. When asked how he could possibly square this remarkable circle, given that the GLA’s Whitehall grant is being cut by 20%, he replied: “I’ll tell you the day after the election.”

The Mayor of London only has four sources of income: Whitehall grant, council tax, public transport fares and the congestion charge. The first is falling dramatically. Ken has now, in effect, promised to freeze the other three, or at least very heavily limit how much he can raise from the C-charge (unless his pledge on the western extension is because he is secretly planning a far wider extension of the congestion charge, something I’ll be looking at in a future post.)

Yet as well as pledging not to bring back the western extension, Ken on Tuesday also promised to start work on three further vastly expensive capital projects – Crossrail Two (this appears to be the project formerly known as the “Chelsea-Hackney line” – two gifts for Chelsea in one week, Ken!), Crossrail Three (Waterloo to Euston, apparently – anyone heard of that one before?) and a second Thames Barrier.

There’s something desperate about this fantasy-project one-upmanship. The Johnsons at number 21 are buying the family a Crossrail, so the Livingstones at number 23 must get a Crossrail Two – and Three! (Perhaps Lembit Opik or Jenny Jones can promise us Crossrail Four and Five?) And, er, I know what, I’ll buy you a second Thames Barrier! Why? One for ASLEF, and one for the RMT, perhaps?

But the main effect is as follows. With each week that passes, the gap between what Ken is pledging to spend and the money he is pledging to raise grows wider. How on earth is he going to pay for everything?

Ken’s latest answer is “the bond markets” – alas, he doesn’t seem to have realised that you can’t borrow on the bond markets to finance non-capital spending, such as keeping down Tube fares or financing Lee Jasper’s lady friends.

There’s only two ways out that I can see. With the oil price going up, perhaps Ken can get his old employers in the Iranian government to sling us a riyal or two. Failing that, there’s always Comrade Hugo…

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Evening Standard triumphs at the Press Awards

Congratulations to my old paper, the Evening Standard, on winning two British Press Awards last night for its outstanding “Dispossessed” series, led by my former colleague David Cohen. It was Cohen who discovered that London children are still being buried, four at a time, in communal paupers’ graves – a useful reminder that for all its liberal self-congratulation, London is probably the most unequal city in Western Europe. It was he who gently teased out the hypocrisy of some of our beloved “thought leaders”, such as Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London, who has dramatically raised the pay of his senior managers, while sadly being unable to afford to pay his cleaners a living wage. Amusingly, even Ken Livingstone, who is trying to butter up the paper’s new management, has tweeted his congrats to the Standard – not something he did for our previous award-winning campaign!

Lutfur Rahman: the payback continues

In previous posts, I have described how Lutfur Rahman, the mayor of Tower Hamlets expelled from the Labour Party for his links with an extremist Muslim group, the IFE, has been steadily rewarding those who put him where he is – mostly at taxpayers’ expense.

– In just the three months between December and February, IFE front bodies have been given at least £149,000 of council money.

– Shiraj Haque, Lutfur’s legally-troubled business backer, has been given back his role organising a council-funded festival: a role from which he was removed in 2007 after allegations (denied) of financial impropriety and people-trafficking.

– A key crony of Ken Livingstone, who broke Labour rules to back Lutfur for mayor against his own party’s candidate, has been given a well-paid job at Tower Hamlets – without going through a formal recruitment process.

Now further rewards can be disclosed. Lutfur’s election agent, Gulam Robbani – who also happens to have been a governor at the IFE’s school, the London East Academy – has also been given a lucrative council post, as has Stephen Beckett, another of his supporters.

And Lutfur’s media allies have been duly rewarded. Tower Hamlets’ payment records show that in the month of January alone, the council paid £10,000 to the London-based Bengali-language TV station Channel S.

Channel S, widely watched in Tower Hamlets, was censured by the broadcasting regulator Ofcom after it acted as a blatant and ludicrous pro-Lutfur propaganda operation during October’s mayoral election. For a taste of just how bad its coverage was, see the transcript here.

Even more reprehensible is the £940 paid by the council in the same month to a “newspaper” called the London Bangla. During the election, a special edition of this publication appeared, stuffed on virtually every page with the most extraordinary series of baroque smears and lies against Lutfur’s principal opponent, Labour’s Helal Abbas. Mr Abbas, the London Bangla claimed, was a wife-beater, an enemy of Islam and had physically attacked canvassers for his opponent. We still haven’t quite got to the bottom of who paid for the vastly extended print-run, and door-to-door delivery, of that particular number of the London Bangla. Let’s hope it’s not us, eh?

More payback revelations in the days ahead.

Lutfur Rahman council pays at least £50,000 a month to front organisations for extremist IFE

It is payback time – at taxpayers’ expense – for the Islamic Forum of Europe, the fundamentalist Muslim group which, in its own words, is working to turn Europe into a sharia state and whose senior official, Azad Ali, has stated that “democracy, if it means at the expense of not implementing the sharia, of course no-one agrees with that.”

For the last thirteen months, the Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches have documented the close links between the IFE and the man who is now the directly-elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman. We described how a senior IFE official, Hira Islam, threatened councillors to secure Lutfur’s appointment as council leader. After he lost that job following our revelations, we told how the IFE and a powerful local businessman organised a campaign to move the borough to a directly-elected mayoral system. After Lutfur was barred by the Labour Party for standing for the mayoralty because of his IFE links, he won the post as an independent. The “chief co-ordinator” of Lutfur’s campaign in that election, Bodrul Islam, who has now fallen out with him, confirmed that Lutfur had a “strategic relationship” with the extremists, who “heavily influenced” his campaign.

Under a coalition initiative, local councils are now obliged to report all their payments online. Tower Hamlets has recently published its first disclosure logs, for the months of December, January and February 2010/11.  In those three months alone, Lutfur’s council paid at least £149,627 to three organisations controlled or heavily influenced by the IFE – the East London Mosque (£17,561) , the Tower Hamlets Council of Mosques (£26,179) and the Osmani Trust (£105,887). Laughably, some of this money was paid under the Government’s “preventing violent extremism” programme.

The IFE’s control of the East London Mosque has been repeatedly documented on this blog. The Council of Mosques, whose office is at the East London Mosque, was until recently run by the IFE official Hira Islam and still has two prominent IFE figures in its management team. Both the trustees of the Osmani Trust, a youth organisation, are also trustees of the IFE. Part of the Osmani Trust’s purpose, according to critics, is to take vulnerable young people off the streets and imbue them with the values of the IFE.

The man in charge of the Osmani Trust’s project working with local gang members, Muhammad Rabbani, is the same person who trains young IFE recruits. In 2009, he told them: “Our goal is to create the True Believer, to then mobilise these believers into an organised force for change who will carry out dawah [preaching], hisbah [enforcement of Islamic law, eg Sharia law] and jihad. This will lead to social change and iqamatud-Deen [an Islamic social, economic and political order.]… We have to bear in mind that victory is for Islam and Muslims.”

The £149k figure is probably a substantial underestimate. Tower Hamlets also heavily funds another IFE youth front organisation, a drugs project called Nafas – giving it almost £500,000 a year under Lutfur’s leadership. No payments to Nafas are shown in the latest disclosures, but it is unlikely that its funding has not continued. Lutfur’s council is also paying the Osmani Trust at least £3 million to build a new youth centre, even though a new secular youth centre has recently been opened just round the corner from it.

What it is to have friends in high places…

High-speed rail: more doubt over the economic case

In all the arguments about High Speed Two, the Government’s sexy new supertrain from London to Birmingham, it’s often forgotten that we already have a High Speed One – the domestic service along the Eurostar high-speed line from London to Kent. Instead of speculating about the high-speed future, we can go and see it for ourselves. As I described in Sunday’s paper, a visit makes a deeply sobering experience for any advocate of high-speed rail. Journey times are often little, if at all, quicker than they were before. Many of the high-speed trains run almost empty. And the conventional services that people actually do want to use have significantly deteriorated.

One area I didn’t have enough space to cover in detail was the economic impact of the line. Many people – not least the Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond – have claimed that HS2 will create “huge economic benefits,” with a “transformational” impact on the Midlands and North. But the experience of HS1 does not support these claims.

If anywhere along the Kent route benefited the most, it should be the town of Ashford – whose service to London is now entirely on new, dedicated high-speed track, and whose journey time to St Pancras is now 38 minutes. Ashford council has indeed claimed that HS1 is “proving an economic boon” for the town, and estate agents have hyped the supposed vibrancy of the local property market. All this has been dutifully regurgitated by various journalists.

But there appears no evidence whatever to support these claims – and substantial evidence that they are untrue. Since the line began full operation, in December 2009, Ashford’s unemployment rate has in fact fallen more slowly than the Kent average, more slowly than the South East average, and more slowly even than the Great Britain average (see below).

Over the same period, Ashford’s house prices have also risen more slowly than both the Kent and South Eastern average, though there may have been more of an impact on property values around the line’s other Kent station, Ebbsfleet.

Towns not served by the high-speed line, such as Tonbridge, Maidstone and Hastings, have often done far better on either or both of these measures than towns actually on the line. In two days of asking, neither Ashford council, nor any of the other local regeneration bodies, could provide me with any concrete figures showing that the line had benefited Kent. Instead, they tended to take refuge in woolly arguments about its having improved “perceptions” of the county.

It seems that another argument for high-speed rail is at best not proven, at worst hollow.

Claimant count          Jan      Jan      Jan              % change        % change

unemployment         09       10        11                    on 09              on 10

Ashford                      3.0      3.8       3.5                   +16.6              -7.9

Hastings                     6.7       8.6       7.4                   +10.4              -14

Tonbridge                  2.3       2.9       2.2                   -4.3                 -24.1

Kent                            3.2       3.3       3.0                  -6.2                 -9.1

SE England                2.3       3.0      2.5                   +8.7                -16.6

GB                               3.4       4.1       3.7                   +8.8                -9.8

Source: House of Commons Library, Office of National Statistics

Place names are parliamentary constituencies

House prices  (annual % change Q4 2009- Q4 2010)

South East  +7.4

Kent                +5

Tun Wells      -2.9

Thanet           -0.9

Swale              +0.4

Shepway        +2.8

Ashford          +3.9

Dover             +5.4

Maidstone      +6.3

Canterbury    +6.8

Sevenoaks     +7.9

Gravesham    +8.1

Dartford         +12.5

Tonbridge      +14.5

Source: Land Registry. Place names are local authority areas

Lutfur Rahman's right-hand man gets in a spot of bother with the cops

One of the biggest supporters of the extremist-backed mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, had a little business setback the other week, I can reveal.

Shiraj Haque, king of the Brick Lane curry kings, suffered the indignity of police raiding his Clifton restaurant empire and carrying away large quantities of allegedly dodgy wine. His restaurants have, it is claimed, been passing off cheap plonk as good stuff – complete with fake labels – and selling it at inflated prices to unsuspecting tourists in search of that authentic Brick Lane experience.

I have called Mr Haque three times over the last four days to ask him about these allegations. Three times, he has refused to deny them – claiming he is “too busy” to discuss the matter. But rival restaurateurs have kindly shown me their CCTV footage of the rozzers turning up, then carting things off in a big van. Of course, it’s possible that the alleged scam may have been perpetrated by his staff, with Mr Haque in total ignorance of all that went on. Mr Haque refused to comment on that, too.

Mr Haque is a multi-millionaire who organised a campaign to turn Tower Hamlets from a conventional leader-and-council borough into one with a directly-elected mayor – a post to which Lutfur was then elected. Mr Haque has openly stated to this blog: “The campaign for a directly elected mayor was my initiative. Whatever expenses were required, I had to pay for it. Tower Hamlets politics was corrupt. I needed someone to fix it, so I thought let’s try him [Lutfur].”

Mr Haque denied bankrolling Lutfur’s personal campaign – which was notably better-resourced than that of any of the other candidates – even though several of Lutfur’s election leaflets were exactly identical in design and typeface to those produced by the campaign for a directly-elected mayor. “Many things look the same in the world,” Mr Haque told me. “It’s the computer age.”

But he has organised celebration feasts for Lutfur, been a vocal presence at the mayor’s side and has also been observed homophobically heckling Lutfur’s  enemies at various council meetings recently. Ted Jeory, who witnessed it, has a selection of some of his choicer rhetoric here.

What’s in it for Shiraj, you may ask? Well, he was chair of something called the Baishakhi Mela Trust, which organised the massive annual Bengali festival of the same name in Tower Hamlets – second in London, by some accounts, only to the Notting Hill Carnival. In 2007, however, under the leadership of Lutfur’s predecessor, Tower Hamlets council – which funds the event – decided to sever relations with Mr Haque and send in the auditors. The move came after persistent allegations – denied by Mr Haque – that the event suffered from financial irregularities and was used as a front to bring in illegal immigrants posing as performers.

As Ted Jeory relates, the auditors, Deloitte, reported that they could ‘provide no assurance that the financial practices and controls adopted by the Baishakhi Mela Trust are sufficiently adequate and effective to enable robust financial management of the trust’s funds’. Since then, the festival has been organised directly by the council and continues to be highly successful. But Mr Haque has long dreamed of getting it back.

Now that Shiraj has got his man in as mayor, things at last seem to be going his way. Not long before his restaurants were raided, Mr Haque was appointed chair of the Baishakhi Mela advisory board. Never let it be said that in Lutfur Rahman’s Tower Hamlets, hard work and enterprise don’t pay off!